Giving Tuesday – Founder’s Story

Founder’s Story 

The experts say that people won’t care what you do – they care why you do it.

Square Peg was dreamed up by a young mother with a child that needed to move and to be encouraged for his curiosity and to have his kindness understood as a strength.  It was created to make a space for ex-racehorses who had given their all on the track and now needed to have a place where they were safe and needed and cared for.  Square Peg was built  for a parent who was desperate for her child to be understood – perhaps admired and where that parent could hear the magical sound of her child laughing.

In 1984 at age 16, I became a mom. My son was born 9 weeks early and weighed 3 and a half pounds. While he grew in an incubator in the hospital, I finished both high school and my first quarter of college.

My son’s learning difficulty started early.  He had trouble focusing and staying still.  The more people tried to force him to sit in a classroom, the worse his frustration grew.  He was singled out for visits to the principal, suspensions, bullying from not just other kids, but by parents who felt their child wasn’t getting the education they needed because of his inability to “sit still.”

By 5th grade I’d run out of options.  He was expelled from school again.  I was working two jobs.  I pulled him from school and began to homeschool despite threats from the superintendent who warned me he wouldn’t get the socialization he needed.  I reminded him that my son was beaten brutally by another 5th grader at school. So much for the magic of school socialization.

What I learned about education – I learned from my son. I learned that he needed to touch things; to manipulate and feel them.  His brain required running and climbing and wonder. I learned daydreaming time is critical mind processing time.

We read books in trees, we learned fractions in the kitchen with measuring cups and bags of macaroni noodles. We learned history from reading foreign films. We visited art museums and splashed in the creek.  Because I still needed to work two jobs I sought out mentors – from the security guards – all retired policemen at the racetrack – who taught him about guns and their proper use and care (I was horrified) to the horseshoer who taught him proper care for tools – my son learned by doing and moving. He started believing he wasn’t stupid or unable.

We moved to Southern California where I enrolled him in an academically competitive junior high school. He floundered.  He fell in with “the wrong kids” and began  skipping school. School was more tortuous for him than ever. The downward spiral continued and I watched him sink into depression.

In 2004, we started Square Peg Ranch.  My son was now a young man, working on a farm in Maui.  In Maui, he re-discovered nature and beauty.  He was riding horses again and was mentored by the local polo pro who taught him the game he loves.  Alone, he explored the Haleakla Volcano by horseback for days on end.

As his life began to take shape, this thing called Square Peg did too. I knew how much kids who didn’t feel like they “fit in” needed a place where they were valued and accepted.  I also wanted to provide a space for the horses who didn’t fit in – mainly failed race horses could find safety.  My thought was that these kids would care for the horses and both would find peace.

Fifteen years later we are two facilities and working on more. We have over 20 horses and a thriving population of families who know the loneliness of having nowhere to fit in.

Every day, I sit with parents who tell me stories of how their child was expelled, shunned, rejected because of “behaviors” in the classroom.  I hear about how people came up to them in the grocery store to tell them that their child needed “a swift kick in the butt.”  They tell us stories of finding their child looking in the bathroom mirror and telling their reflection that they are “bad” or “crazy.”

At the ranch, difference is celebrated – childhood is revered.  The animals reflect back the innocence and the curiosity that the students project.  The natural setting creates a space with minimal sensory triggers – the things that often bring about behaviors such as aggression or elopement (running away) or the dreaded autism tantrums – (crying and screaming jags that can last hours).

The environment we developed at the ranch is set up so that there is an inherent feeling of peace for the parents and the animals and especially for the students.  Laughter is the original communication because it imparts the permission to be joyful.

Square Peg built a reputation of trust with these families by putting human dignity first – and that has made all of the difference.

Square Peg will be successful when nothing we do is special. 

We work tirelessly to make that happen.  We show the world that a person’s dignity is sacred and worthy of reverence. To help others understand that a child’s curiosity is a force more important than facts and procedures and that the most important skills in life – joy, self advocacy, building community and compassion are essential to cultivate and encourage so that these “Square Pegs” can live up to their potential. When neuro-diversity is the new cool we will know we are successful.

Together we will make change for these families and for the millions of families like them, we offer a ray of hope.

Our mission statement holds as true today as on the day we wrote it over 15 years ago:  Square Peg’s Mission is to turn “I wish” into “I can.”

This coming Tuesday is Giving Tuesday – it’s a chance to contribute to organizations that are making a difference in their communities.

Square Peg has been issued a challenge – if we can raise $75,000 by December 31, 2019 – we will be awarded an additional $75,000 matching grant. That means that your contribution will be doubled. It’s the leverage we need to continue to create jobs, recreation opportunities, community and safety for those we serve.

We promise to make you proud to be a supporter.

You can donate here

Joell Dunlap, November 30, 2019

From a Hit – to a Kiss A Transformation Story

The following is a college essay by Tessa Biggs

Yesterday’s first session was with J, an eight-year-old non-verbal boy. I helped him onto the horse and he smacked on the head – hard. 

Fortunately, this was not my first rodeo.

I work at Square Peg, an equine based program for people with autism and related neuropsychological challenges.  Things are different here. Acceptance is central to the ideology of Square Peg, and the key to preserving the dignity of the individual. My job is to understand that J was communicating sensory overload in the only way people listen to someone with few words.

I started here as a 13-year-old volunteer caring for Square Peg’s horses. They’re injured and re-purposed racehorses. They are also “square pegs.”  

Over the years I progressed to working with kids. We sang, hiked, and kayaked, and rode. We caught garter snakes, and slid down manure piles. 

Now, as a Square Peg instructor, I model acceptance, play, and joy. My job is to follow the interest of the child.  It could mean running around the corral pretending we are horses, it might mean staging an epic light saber battle on horseback. Acceptance and delight are the order of the day – all days. It is the groundwork for self-determination.

For the families, learning that there is one place where their child isn’t just tolerated, he’s celebrated creates a context for relaxation, a glimmer of hope, and a chance to connect with other families. Finally, they don’t feel  isolated. 

Children find peace in the physical connection pressing their cheek against a warm, kind horse twenty times their size. Those who struggle to speak have breakthrough moments of  communication.

As for J – gradually, the rocking of the horse and the stillness of the trees and the absence of blame soothed his cortisol-soaked brain. Fifteen minutes later with his face tilted up to the sunshine, he smiled at me. He started the ride by hitting my hand – at the end he kissed it.

Tuesday, December 3 is Giving Tuesday. Square Peg has received the largest single year grant opportunity. ALL donations committed by December 31, 2019 will be matched up to $75,000. Please help us make best use of this matching grant. Your support means the world to us and to the families and the animals we serve.

Donate here

What’s Up With Racing?

We are publishing this to address a question that has been posed to us over and over recently in light of the media stories of horses dying on California racetracks. 

Even one dead horse is too many for us horse lovers – but here are some things you may not know about horse racing in California.

#1. Racing in the US is a gambling sport. The rules of racing laws protect the gambler – that is to say – laws of racing are intended to present information to the gamblers who place bets on racing.  The money for purses is raised as a portion of the gambling. The Governor appoints a horse racing board – volunteers who oversee racing operations.   

#2 Racing in the US is parimutuel gambling.  That means bettors bet against each other and not against the house (like a casino) and not against a handicapping system (as it is in England and Ireland).

  Say there are 10 horses in a race and 10 bettors each bet $10 – the parimutuel pool is now $100.  The state of California takes out a percentage right off the top – as does the track – including a portion that goes directly to a racing purse account – the rest of the money is in a betting pool and the proceeds are paid out of that pool to the betting public.  

Why is this important?  It means that the racetrack’s job is to keep racing fair. Keeping the faith of the gamblers is the life’s blood of the business.  So – drug testing is stringent and regulators work  to stay up to date on testing methods and funding programs and systems to manage any person trying to “cheat.”  In every parimutuel California race, at least two horses and up to five horses will be drug tested immediately after the race. 

What’s all this talk about racing surfaces? 

The surface of a parimutuel racing track is maintained by a team of engineers, equipment operators and horsemen. The track is groomed to maintain a consistent footing before every race and usually at least twice (sometimes three times) in the morning during workouts.  Efforts are made to address any track inconsistencies immediately.  If you show your horse – you  have experienced good and not-so-good and downright bad footing at different events. Opinions can vary greatly about the same surface. 

Why do racing people compete 2 year olds? 

Not every breeder does. Some refuse to compete horses until at least their 3 year old year.  As with cutting futurities, young jumper classes and the like – some breeders are eager to prove a new stallion and can’t wait to show the performance horse world what their horses are capable of. Some people simply look at the finances – waiting another year to compete a horse could cost another $10,000 or more.  There is talk now that performance horse people – racing – jumping -polo – dressage – cutting and more are “competing to breed” and not “breeding to compete.”  It’s a question that anyone who breeds performance animals should ask themselves. 

What happens to ex racehorses after they can no longer compete?

Here’s where you get to be proud to be a Californian. California led the way in racing in developing legislation that took a percentage of each owner’s earnings from their horses and contributes it – unless the owner specifically signs a statement that they choose to opt out of the program – to a fund for placing retired horses who have raced in California. The fund is aptly called CARMA. Other states were quick to follow suit and soon after, the racing industry of North America led the way in forming the Thoroughbred AfterCare Alliance which not only distributes funds raised from breeders, sales companies, owners and special events now even racing fans at certain tracks can use the  betting machines to contribute to the TAA –  to qualified Aftercare providers. The TAA instituted an extremely rigorous process to identify best practices and a Gold Standard of care for facilities that are re-purposing or giving sanctuary to Off Track Thoroughbreds.  

Does racing have work to do?  

Absolutely.  

A thoroughbred is bred and trained to give the racing public everything he’s got and that comports tremendous responsibility. Because racing is a gambling sport – horse deaths on parimutuel tracks are public information. Necropsy reports on race horse deaths have furthered the science for all performance and pet horses – informing veterinarians, farriers, feed companies of how to build better systems, products, and practices to keep our equine friends healthy. 

Holding all who make a living and get pleasure from participating in equine sports accountable for the animals in our care is a moral responsibility that we share. 

I’ve had the honor of knowing some brilliant horsemen in my 30 years in this business. Veterinarians, trainers, policy makers, breeders and fans.  From cowboys to Grand Prix riders and everything in-between and many of the most brilliant, the most committed and the most dedicated – have been in the racing industry.  And of course, I’ve met some bad apples –  people who see not only the animals in their charge but also employees are commodities to be exploited. 

So where do we go from here?

Changes come when the public demands accountability.  But real change comes when we use this outrage to look at our own selves and hold ourselves accountable to the animals we love and DO something about it. Some things you can do right now are:

  • Donate to a TAA Accredited charity that actively funds care for ex racing horses and pensioned broodmares. Yes – like Square Peg Foundation
  • Adopt an ex racehorse and commit to his/her care for the rest of their lives – not just for how long you can ride them. 
  • Offer to volunteer at a local equine sanctuary.  Even if you can’t or won’t clean stalls, you can help with fundraising events, answer the phone or emails, design the website. 
  • Make a retirement plan for your own horse(s) including funds and care instructions for your horse in the event of your death or disability.
  • Get informed and stay curious about the facts.  Remember that news sources are commercial ventures and sensational information is what sells. Talk to your veterinarian, call the California Horse Racing Board and check your news and information sources for reliability. 
  • If you see abuse at your barn – calmly address it in a way that helps make real and lasting change.
  • Read up on drug and treatment strategies so that you can make intelligent, informed decisions about animals in your care. And understand that these studies are evolving and drugs and treatments that we thought were effective and safe may turn out to be otherwise.  

This morning, our vet and I euthanized Cayambe a 15 year old thoroughbred who raced 67 times and made $581,000 for his connections. His gallant heart raced for fans all over this country and in each race, he gave everything he had. Being there for our equine friends in their time of need is hard and necessary and it’s the price we pay for the honor of being around a being that is willing to give us everything they’ve got. 

Thank you Cayambe.

Cayambe aka Kyle January 14, 2004 to September 19, 2019


Words Matter

If a doctor tells a family their child’s brain may never develop past the infant stage, that family’s life could be dictated by that statement. But, if the same professional said “we don’t know if he can recognize you, we don’t know if he understands language. But he might.

It’s not false hope – it’s acknowledging the humanity of the patient.

What’s the disconnect?

Dignity: A fundamental belief in the humanity of a differently-abled person.

Always Assume Intelligence. You risk nothing and you could be bestowing the most precious gift a human can give another human.The gift of Dignity.

We are often asked “Why horses?”

I’ve wrested with whether my fascination with all things equine, the fascination I was supposed to grow out of – perhaps I’m foisting on our families in hopes of a miracle?

I’m a skeptic. I pour over journals for evidence-based studies on why horses elicit positive outcomes. I often toss anecdotes aside and look for charts and graphs on things like behavior reduction, oxytocin production, reduced aggressiveness and more.

Here’s the thing, a horse never sees “potential” in anyone. She sees you for exactly who you are and she offers you the Dignity of that. The Dignity to be scared, to be dis-regulated, to be curious, kind, or excited. The Dignity to be you.

A horse can’t project a notion of who you should, might or can be.

As herd animals, a horse’s survival depends on the ability to size you up and understand your role. Biologically, they understand children are vital and they react with some measure of protective care or a gentle nudge demanding independence. It’s not anthropomorphizing – it’s survival.

The moment another being looks at you and sees you for exactly who you are is the moment you start to blossom.

How much would you pay for a therapist who could accurately assess you in 30 seconds or less?

What’s our crazy idea to change the world?

We change the words. We lead by example – putting Dignity first – because every one of us at some point needs support and all of us deserve community. With our feet pointed toward Dignity, we may stumble and sometimes, we will fail – but change will come.

I imagine a world where “Always Assume Intelligence” will be the norm – not the exception. Dignity for everyone won’t be remarkable. The lives of families change profoundly and opportunities for everyone to realize human potential occur.

Challenge the words. It’s how we move forward.

The Revolution of Kindness marches on.

The Company We Keep


The people I call friends and colleagues are some of my most treasured gifts.

The privilege to be able to call on the collective wisdom and care of this rich bevy of humans is something I’m not ever going to be worthy of – but I can be grateful. 

Last year, I sat on a plane and crossed the Atlantic with my father on one side of me and my husband on the other.  We’d spent a week together discovering Ireland. My heart was full from the sights, the sounds, the faces of Ireland, and my mind was on fire.

I opened my journal on the runway and my pen started moving.  A realization was firming up in my head and it was big.

Before landing back home, I’d discovered a terrifying truth that I would have to sit with.

“Every single utopian, pie-in-the-sky dream I had for Square Peg was not just possible, it was already being done – and done beautifully. The folks that were doing it were ready, willing and able  to help me make it a reality in the States.”

This means that there would be no more hiding behind the veil of “that’s nice, but impossible.”  It means, “not only is this possible – but your ideas are vital, effective and necessary. 

I’ll illustrate. 

What if you put someone with a severe anxiety condition, with obsessive or destructive behaviors  that render him otherwise unemployable and very high needs into a space of natural beauty and imbued that living space with a sense of freedom rather than in a restrictive, sterile “safe” space and suddenly, the personhood and dignity of that individual blooms and he is able to find meaningful ways to contribute to his community?  Sounds nice of course but what if you can prove that this saves the community funds, time and efforts while helping this person to achieve a sense of worth and use?

This is exactly what my friend David Doyle is doing in County Cork Ireland.  He knew he was right.  He’s a parent of a child that the rest of the world had written off as dangerous, disabled and vastly limited. He and his wife did not accept defeat for their daughter. He’s the administrator of municipal funds and knows exactly what the government is spending to sequester people like his daughter. He’s a horseman of the first order and knows the value of bringing  animals and a peaceful farm program together to create family memories. 

There’s more.

What if we look at all the studies for parent respite and understand the value of a family being able to recreate together to create healthier families and communities? The barrier is that it’s almost impossible to find qualified respite workers, homes and opportunities.  Well, if you are David Doyle, you rent an entire resort and bring 165 families on a vacation. I didn’t stutter – I said 165 FAMILIES!  He provided horses, swimming, all of the recreation you would find for “normal” families and he added two true Irish style pubs for the families to gather and sing and share in total understanding and acceptance. And guess what?  It was transformative. 

I’ll need to chew on that.

Not all heroes wear capes. 

Liskennet Equestrian Center, County Cork Ireland

I gotta get back to work. 

.

Intro to Horse Boy Method Workshop June 14 &15 Cadence Farm, Sonoma CA


For  years Rupert and Rowan shared the saddle together on a horse named Betsy. The story of  Rowan opening  to the outside world through Betsy is told in the bestselling book and award winning film “The Horse Boy“.

With Rowan’s success,  Rupert started working with other children on the spectrum to see if what  worked with Rowan and Betsy would  work for them. While no method can ever be right for 100% of people  Rupert found a sufficiently high percentage of children benefited-sometimes  in astonishing ways.
The framework of techniques targets different  challenges.  Horse Boy™ and Movement Method are now being used worldwide. Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity!

Who should attend this clinic?

Important note: This workshop is hands on and intense.  We cannot have you bring your child to the workshop.  It is our organizational ethic that when a child is here – especially one that needs some support – we focus all our energy on the child.  This workshop is to give you tools to help support those you love and care about – so this is our chance to focus on you. 

Training Overview 

• Introduction to Autism
• What our methods are. Why they are different?
• Necessary Equipment
• Sensory session with horses
• Collection – what it is and why it matters

• Intro to Back-riding training
• How to create the right environment for Horse Boy Method
• How to cope with children unwilling or afraid to ride
• Long-lines (working with young adults too large to back-ride)
• Rule based games / Perspective taking
• Academics on horseback: how to use the dressage arena and round pen for math, biology, geography and more!
• How to work with the entire family
• Basic trick work. Learning the aids, and demo of how tricks are used for communication

When: June 15 and 15, 2019 10am to 3pm

Where: Cadence Farm, Meadowlark Way, Sonoma,CA. (Just off Hwy 121)

CostRiders $675  Non Riders: $340. UPDATE: We’ve been approved to offer the following discount: $495 for Riders and $325 for non riders

Space is limited! use PayPal link below to secure your space.  If you prefer to pay by check, email joell@squarepegfoundation.org to reserve your spot.

Riding or Non-Riding
Rider $495.00 USDNon-rider $300.00 USD

Respect the Struggles, Honor the Strengths – The True Nature of Teaching

“Sit well Joell”

Heeding these words, – a difficult move suddenly becomes easy and I feel elegant, organized and – able

There were no technical fixes in the instruction – more importantly, there is an assumption that my teacher assumes  I am capable.

She could have said:

“Don’t slouch”

“You are collapsing in your ribcage again”.

“You are sitting like an old lady”

….and all of these things would have been true and each of these things has been said to me before.  But instead she said;

“Sit well.”

And I did.

Consequently, I was successful. 

This makes me think about the true spirt of teaching and the nature of real support. 

I read a fascinating statement about the labels “high functioning” and “low functioning” as it relates to autism. 

“A high functioning label means that your struggles are ignored and and a low functioning label means that your strengths are ignored.”

Anyone in the autism field knows this reality and  the real work lies in finding real solutions.

“Sit well.”

Real support honors the struggles and the strengths of the learner and lets the learner develop a context for figuring things out and succeeding or failing the way to new discoveries. 

For example – a young man dearly wants social connection.  He wants peers and real friends. How would I best support him in developing this critical skill and very human need?

By honoring both his strengths and his struggles.

First and most important – I presume competence.  I need to have a clear picture in my mind of him being successful.  No pity – no doubts – just believing  he is capable.  This transfers to everything I might say or do, every phrase I choose and every gesture I make.   Next, I model friendship in every exchange we have.  He sees me being friendly, making and keeping friends.  And  we talk about the effort it takes because he might presume this is easy for me and impossible for him.

Then we find real connections for him with people who share his interests. 

In a nutshell, what we learned in  kindergarten turns out to be golden:

“If you want a good friend – be a good friend.”

Can it be that simple?

The other option – the one that doesn’t work is  to neither respect his struggles nor appreciate his strengths.  It looks like this:

“You never make eye contact and you need to learn  in order to make friends”

“You must say ‘hello’”

“Try to smile more – people like that.”

Once again, all of these things are true – and yet each statement illustrates that I don’t believe that he’s capable  and I don’t appreciate his unique struggles and I’m not interested in what he’s interested in. 

“Sit well Joell.”

We are deeply grateful to the horsemastership mentorship of Sofia Valenca and Goncalo Linhas of Lisbon Portugal.  Not only for your depth of horsemanship knowledge you so generously share, but more importantly, your faith in us and in our horses that we are elegant, capable and able. 

Here’s to great teachers – may we find them, treasure then and strive to be them. 

#TeamQuirky

I Could Be Wrong But…

The young woman throws her assistive talking device over her shoulder and marches directly to the shack where we keep the helmets, boots, games and – my favorite – hundreds of books.

Camille Corot – Reverie – 1864-65

From the moment we started Square Peg, I dreamed of having a room full of books with an honor system of borrowing.  No check out, no due dates – just bring a book or take home 10.  No worries.

Today, the shelves are bursting with colorful children’s stories, dusty outdated boxes of horse care texts, trashy adult novels and scores of self help books.

The young woman’s parents and I exchange “uh oh” looks at each other.  None of us were fast enough to re-direct her march to the shack.  We’d all hoped it was going to be a good riding day.  The sun was out, the horse was willing, the trails called for a calming ride.  We hoped it was one of those magical days with smiles and exhales and bowel regulation for this non-verbal young woman who is so often anxious and agitated.

But alas, she’s in the shack and she’s grabbing books from the shelves and throwing them onto the floor. She’s working faster and faster to grab and throw.  Occasionally, she opens a book and begins to rip out the pages.

It’s distressing for the family and I have to admit that it hurts my heart to see a book rendered mostly useless after this rough treatment. But I remind myself that we have literally hundreds of books

I sit on the floor with her and open a story and I begin to read it to her.  She takes it out of my hand and throws it onto the floor.  She’s winding up to what we worry will be a mania that ends in crying and possibly some level of frustrated self harm. 

The horse and the volunteer are waiting and we bring his patient self over to the shack and induce him to place his curious face in the doorway hoping it will delight her and cause her to choose an activity we are uniquely qualified to deliver.  She pauses, looks at the horse for the briefest of moments and resumes what looks like random grabbing and throwing of books. 

The horse, unlike me, has no agenda and is not offended.  He happily drops his head and looks for grass to munch.  

I urge myself to take a clue from our horse and drop my agenda too. Something deep in my gut tells me to stay with this young woman and watch.

Watch.  She’s telling us something.

Or is she just winding up to a meltdown that will leave her and her parents exhausted?

Watch Joell.  Just stay.  Hold space.  Breathe.

Soon, I’m not watching, my brain is wandering.  I’m reviewing all the things that need doing – all the triage of my day.  And then I beat myself up for that.

Watch. Stay. I have to force myself not to look at my watch.  Stay.  Watch.

More. books fly off the shelf onto the floor. She’s gasping for breath and clearly frustrated and I’m no closer to understanding than I was before.

Finally, the parents need to go.  Another family is arriving and we begin the painful process of extricating this young woman from the shack and the giant pile of thrown books.  Dad picks her up – no small feat as she’s no longer a little girl. Her eye catches a closed cardboard box up high on a shelf – she needs to see what’s inside.  I know that it’s a dusty box of horse care books and veterinary manuals – not children’s reading.  But she HAS TO KNOW what’s inside – which also means more books thrown onto the floor that I will need to pick up and re-shelve.

I’m human.  I’m tired.  So is dad and I reason with her that “it’s nothing you want.” but that’s not going to work and so I jump in the air and grab the dusty box and, as predicted, they are summarily taken out and thrown on the floor with the hundreds of others.

Feeling like a failure, I watch dad manage his now disregulated daughter toe-walking down the hill to the parking lot.  She’s angry and frustrated and I’m trying to think of the role I played in that.  

Later that night, I crawl into bed and crack open the novel I’m reading.  I’m eager to throw off the day and settle into a story of another land, another time and place, another point of view. 

Then it hits me. 

That’s what this young woman was looking for.  Stories give her the same pleasure they give me.  She likes familiar stories – ones she knows what happens next – characters she is familiar with.  She’s seeking that same deep pleasure that I, a lifetime reader crave.

She was just looking for a familiar book!  A particular book that would soothe her and delight her – the same way a great story delights me.

Not finding that story was the cause of the panic.  Looking desperately for a ticket away from the cacophony of a life of a sensory sensitive person who is also in the throes of puberty is as natural as sunshine – as “right as rain.”

We all seek pleasure, relief, solace. All she wanted was the book that would bring her these three things.

Wait. Watch. Breathe. 

#FollowTheChild

Forgiveness…..No Matter What

“Do you know what my favorite thing about horses is?”

The boy paused and listened.  I went on-

“My favorite thing about horses is that they always forgive me – no matter what.”

The boy thought and his hands relaxed, his breathing changed and he began to stroke the horse.  He leaned into the horse and hugged him and the horse (as you can see) hugged him back.

This horse, the son of Afleet Alex is not yet a therapy horse.  He is what you might call “a trainer’s horse.”  That means he’s tricky, hot, brilliant.  He’s also got one eye.  He’s not known to be calm or indulgent or even particularly trusting.

The child is similar. He’s brilliant, often violent and oh so tricky.  He’s got a medical and a psychiatric record that baffles the experts at Stanford University. 

The child arrived at the ranch in a frenzy of mixed emotions that manifested in a belief that there were bad people out there trying to hurt him or kidnap him and that he needed to fight and fight hard to be safe. One moment he was cussing and throwing things and the next, he was overcome with tears.  

Even for us – with 15 years experience in this field – it was going to be a rocky day at best. 

I’d taken the boy on a hike up the mountain.  We talked and we played with different surfaces to drum on.  The drumming always helps him.  Drumming has helped regulate humans since we discovered fire.  

Once back to the barn, the boy began to struggle again and he decided to take it out on my one eyed and brilliant horse.  

He’s done this before – he often approaches the horse on his blind side and slaps him on his cheek below the missing eye – not to hurt him but to surprise him .  He laughs cruelly when the horse jumps back in surprise.  Sometimes, as he was doing today, he jumps aggressively toward the horse yelling and watching for the horse’s fearful response.

Any first year psychology student will be able to tell that this is a child who feels threatened and disempowered and is just looking for a moment when it’s HIM that has the power to intimidate and HIM that has the power to create fear.  It’s heartbreaking if you think about it – but this child’s life – despite the most amazing parents who will go to the ends of the earth for their child – his neurology is such that he’s very often in a terrified and fearful headspace.  

I’ve consulted with the experts and sorted through my own skills to think of a way to get this particular behavior to ameliorate. 

As a behaviorist – one tactic is to ignore the behavior.  Clearly this is a behavior that always gets attention from everyone around. I’ve tried having a conversation with the child “What’s going on buddy?  Why would you be so mean to a horse that has never been mean to you?”  I’ve tried re-directing, modeling gentle behavior, rewarding him any time he’s kind to any animal. But here we were again and let’s face it – as a horseman, it’s torturous to watch your horse be punished and for no reason.

So I thought about the root of the problem – about not feeling in control, or heard, or seen. About needing to understand that others also feel fear.

I thought about all of our organizational precepts – about the human environment, about self advocacy – about what real compassion feels like and about the difference between tolerance and acceptance. 

And that’s when I said:

“Do you know what my favorite thing about horses is?”

The boy paused and listened.  I went on –

“My favorite thing about horses is that they always forgive me – no matter what.”

The boy thought and his hands relaxed, his breathing changed and he began to stroke the horse.  He leaned into the horse and hugged him and as you can see in the photo the horse hugged him back.

And then the greatest gift.  He turned and looked up at the horse and said –

“You know what Joell?  This horse reminds me of my mom.  She always forgives me too.”

Shut Up – Sass in the City

I got up early, cleaned the stalls,  fed the horses. I pet the dog, kissed my husband and flew across the US. I arrived at midnight and hopped a cab to a funky rented bedroom hosted by a kind stranger. The next morning, I put on warm clothes and hiked a mile or so through an unfamiliar city.  I descended three floors down into a basement of a high-rise. In my backpack was my presentation – my 25 minutes of the best I had to offer.

I’d worked hard on the presentation. I’d stretched myself to contact folks way above my pay grade. I’d paced and lost sleep – because it had to be good.

I promised myself I’d be prepared – as an honor to an academic audience – I prepared answers to extremely hard questions and I’d thought of how to deliver the complex but direct answers with humor and humanity. 

I brought my “A” game. 

Once there – I forged through the technology hiccups, I flexed with grace when they changed the time we would present.  

I tried not to walk out of an earlier presentation. But I had to go – because I’ve been there before in a presentation where the people delivering services treat their charges as less than.  Where people are so busy building logical systems to create resilience and independence for people with disabilities – and they forgot that none of us need more independence – what we need – what we crave – what we are suffering from is a lack of interdependence

When my time came – I honored those who were doing the work – I pointed out the strengths and the humanity of my co-presenter I summoned up all the west coast charm I could muster.

Half way in – I was told I was out of time. I tried to make a joke of it and was met with a blank stare from the young woman who had been managing the fits and starts of event day since early that morning. What she needed was for something to go on schedule as planned. She wasn’t interested in me getting to my point. She didn’t care that most of the people were leaning in – laughing and nodding their heads. 

Anyway, why should she? She was doing her job – getting things moving with an adjusted schedule – attending to needs of others.

But I had something to say.

Being raised to be a good girl – I rushed as quickly as I could – I skipped the meat  of my presentation in an effort to meet her adjusted time schedule – and I sold myself short.

And I sold my audience short.

And I missed the chance to advocate fiercely for the people that we are all supposed to be serving. 

The good news is that – as per usual – I’m being too hard on myself. People stayed afterward to talk. They cried and hugged me for the message. They pressed business cards into my hand – they asked my advice.  Clearly this is how I best serve the cause? 

But I’m learning.  I learned about civil disobedience and that nobody should be able to rush us when our message is about relieving suffering. Nobody’s schedule is more precious than somebody’s humanity and the message that we MUST change the systems that are creating suffering. 

I promise to do more. 

It’s funny – last year, I was asked to present at the Aspen Brain Lab.  I worked hard on the presentation and then the organizer chose (wisely) to ask someone else – someone local – to do the presentation.  Frustrated, I took my presentation and made it into a video.  That video has been seen all over the world and by many, many more folks than would have been at the Aspen Brain Lab. 


I will do the same with this presentation. Watch out – this is going to be good…..

Go #TeamQuirky.